By Laura Gottesdiener and Daina Beth Solomon
MONTERREY, Mexico, June 21 (Reuters) - Three asylum seekers were kidnapped in April while in a U.S. migration program that had placed them in the care of Mexican officials in the city of Nuevo Laredo, across the border from Texas, one of the victims and the U.N. migration agency said.
The kidnapping, reported here for the first time, happened in spite of measures the Biden administration says improved the safety of the program, known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), which requires asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their U.S. immigration court hearings.
The case is the first known kidnapping under the revamped MPP, said Dana Graber Ladek, Chief of Mission in Mexico for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a United Nations agency that helps transport people under the program.
Reuters learned further details of the case through an interview with one of the kidnapped migrants, a 29-year-old Peruvian chef named Raul. A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security also confirmed the kidnapping.
"We are aware of the incident and are extremely concerned," said Graber Ladek, adding that she was in contact with local and national Mexican authorities "to prevent these things from happening again."
The migrants were in custody of Nuevo Laredo city officials, not IOM, when they were abducted.
U.S. President Joe Biden, a Democrat, ended MPP soon after taking office last year as part of a push to reverse the hardline immigration policies of his Republican predecessor Donald Trump, but was forced to reinstate it in December under court order.
In re-implementing the program, the Biden administration promised new measures would enhance protection for migrants.
"You think you're in good hands," Raul said of the U.S. government, asking that his last name be withheld out of fear of retaliation from the kidnappers. "But that's not the case."
Raul crossed the Rio Grande river into Texas on April 10 after a flight to Mexico from Peru. Ten days later, DHS officials returned him to Nuevo Laredo, a notoriously dangerous city where kidnapping is rife, on the Mexican side of the border across from Laredo, Texas.
Officials from Nuevo Laredo's Civil Protection authority, a municipal emergency services department, then drove Raul and two other migrants toward a local shelter. But kidnappers stopped the truck and took the migrants captive to extort their family and friends in the United States for ransom.
It was not clear to Raul who the kidnappers were, he said.
In a statement to Reuters, a DHS spokesperson said the kidnapping case highlighted MPP's "endemic flaws." The Biden administration cited risks including kidnapping of migrants in its decision to end the Trump-era program.
A federal judge in Texas last year ruled the administration had violated procedural laws when ending MPP, ordering it be reinstated. Immigration advocates say the Biden administration has not done enough to fight the court order.
Raul recounted his story to a Mexican lawyer in a five-page statement, seen by Reuters, that he signed under penalty of perjury on May 5. He shared the same account with IOM staff and a psychologist at the migrant shelter in Monterrey, those people told Reuters.
Mexico's federal migration institute declined to comment to Reuters questions about the kidnapping. Mexico's foreign ministry told Reuters that it works with the U.S. government, U.N. agencies, and Mexican security forces to safeguard all migrants.
Nuevo Laredo's Civil Protection authority denied the kidnapping took place and instead said the three migrants jumped out of the car to avoid quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19. Other city authorities declined to comment.
IOM officials said that as a result of the incident, in late April, state police began to accompany some migrants in MPP transported in Nuevo Laredo. Tamaulipas' state security department said its police accompanied migrants in MPP, as well other migrants, in coordination with federal migration authorities.
FORCED TO PAY
Raul arrived in Nuevo Laredo on April 20 with a notice to appear in a Laredo, Texas courtroom the following month.
Under the revamped MPP, migrants in the program are usually bussed south to the safer city of Monterrey by IOM, but Raul and two other returned asylum seekers had tested positive for COVID-19 and under a protocol meant to keep COVID from spreading, they were due to quarantine in Nuevo Laredo.
Instead, the assailants brought the three men to a two-story house where they were held captive with about 20 other migrants, Raul said.
He quickly realized the criminals' victims were migrants who had been returned or deported back to Mexico. "They knew we had family in the United States," Raul said, noting the kidnappers forced him and others to turn over phone numbers of their contacts. They cursed and punched him in the stomach when he said he had only one contact, he said.
After four days of "anguish" and a $6,000 ransom payment, half of what the kidnappers initially demanded, his captors took him to a bus stop and told him to leave town.
He took a bus south to Monterrey and got in touch with IOM, which placed him in a shelter and transported him to the border for his first U.S. court hearing in early May.
Once in Texas, Raul successfully petitioned for an exception to stay in the United States for the duration of his asylum case.
In its decision to end the Trump-era program, the Biden administration referred to studies by human rights groups that documented hundreds of kidnappings of migrants returned to Mexico.
Mexico's national human rights commission, a government watchdog agency, said in a report last year that kidnapping was one of the most common crimes against migrants placed in the original MPP program, which was also known as 'Remain in Mexico.'
The revamped MPP was designed to be different. DHS protocols issued in December promised "access to shelters in Mexico and secure transportation to and from ports of entry to these shelters."
Stephanie Leutert, immigration expert and former Biden administration advisor on migration policy, said the measures, such as bussing migrants out of Nuevo Laredo to Monterrey, have improved security overall, but that Raul's case shows the protocols still have serious faults.
Raul says U.S. officials should never have sent him back.
"They returned me to Mexico, and exactly what I feared is what happened," he said.